What Most Online Metrics Won’t Show You

by Shannon Paul on April 20, 2010

For every person who leaves a comment or answers a survey or poll question, there are roughly 99 who do nothing in response — they don’t share, comment or link to your content from their blog.

For most people online, social networking is still a spectator sport.

We can definitely reason that the participation on any given website or social network influences those who do not participate, but how they may be influenced by that interaction could vary more than we think.

Are Lurkers the Dark Matter of the Internet?

SAS CMO Jim Davis and I had a great discussion at the SAS Global Forum last week in Seattle where the company launched its new Social Media Analytics platform. [Disclosure: I was invited by the company to attend the event free of charge and they fed me dinner.]

Since SAS is all about data, the company sees the enormous potential for business intelligence within amount of data people like you and I are generating via the social web. But, I wanted to talk about what we can’t see in social networks and my concern that some companies might try to exert too much control over sentiment even if it wasn’t in their best interest.

It was an interesting conversation and one I won’t soon forget. The answer, it seems, is organization-wide integration of data.

Even though social media is extremely important for a company’s online presence and their ability to adapt to their operations to the demand of the real-time web, there are still way more people consuming than creating.

Most estimates conclude 1% of community members contribute content. I believe this percentage is higher when we think of sharing links and other social behaviors, but the majority are just searching and consuming.

How do we measure the impact all of this data must be having on the silent majority, aka the lurkers, and vice versa?

How Much Negative Sentiment is Actually a Bad Thing?

We all love a good debate. Lovefests between like minded individuals get boring fast, especially for third-party obsevers. Even the Brady Bunch would occasionally scrap.

Conflict can sometimes have the potential to keep things interesting, as long as it illustrates a greater issue or larger truth (and sometimes even when it doesn’t). Getting everyone possible to express positive sentiments about your company, product or yourself isn’t always desirable, but finding the right people to be customers, stakeholders and partners is, right?

My point here is that sometimes when we’re online, we forget we’re on stage. Although we can focus on the interaction, the interaction is public and potentially long lasting.

How much value will lurkers observe in social interactions that net nothing but good vibes? Will it be real enough for them to trust?

My worry isn’t about long-standing negative impact to reputation (something I think still keeps too many businesses sidelined with regard to online social interaction), but rather how this focus on changing sentiment might eclipse real business goals. Can businesses get comfortable with having a point of view and tolerating divergent opinions?

If your company’s goal is to be popular, great. If your goal is to be successful, well that’s probably something different.

Even Apple gets a little hate, and for good reason.

Mentions or Impressions, or Both?

The lurkers are why I think having integrated analytics that get beyond one-to-one measurement and delve into multitouch capabilities is crucial.

Silos don’t work with respect to communications OR data.

These lurkers may not be leaving comments or uploading profile pics, but they may be doing things like purchasing, opting into premium subscriptions and conducting purchase-related research for things they will ultimately buy offline.

Research suggests lurkers may also do things like search for branded keywords once they’ve encountered some of your marketing information in search, social networks, or encountered some of your display ads. This means they’re much more likely to search for the name of your company, product or service after encountering your marketing messages elsewhere online. If we attribute this behavior to search alone, we’re missing a big piece of the puzzle.

Maybe online ads really do work, just not always in the way we think they should (via a click).

How Often Users Click on Advertisements

Chart Courtesy of the Project For Excellence In Journalism and the Pew Internet & American Life Project

I’m just thinking out loud here, but even if everything online is ultimately measurable, business is still driven by human behavior; and human behavior is rarely understood in a one-to-one measurement where the causes and effects line up perfectly like dominos.

Digging Deeper

No matter how hard we try, data will never be a substitute for insight, and forcing sentiment change should never be a business goal, especially when it goes against the overall strategy.

I think it’s time we stop looking for easy answers and quick wins with social media and start asking better questions. What do you think?

Photo Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

April 20, 2010 Karl Sakas 1

If it were all positive sentiment, companies couldn’t use the buzz as feedback to improve things — like a public version of the Yes Man.

You’re right about the need for multi-touch tracking, considering that purchases are ultimately more important than engagement — paying cash speaks louder than clicking “Like” on Facebook.


April 20, 2010 Peter Chee 2

I’ve stopped trying to measure every freaking metric with regards to social media. I’m a data junkie, love numbers and analyzing data. It was fun looking at all every little number, follower counts, retweets, blog comments, fans, clicks, impressions…

Things have changed for me. I’m pretty sure that things are working in the social media space because every week I get someone in the thinkspace community walking by my office saying something like “I know what you’re doing because I follow your Twitter stream” or “I read your blog and heard about…” or “I saw a friend mention your company on their Facebook page”.

On our LinkedIn group page, we had a little commotion (some negative sentiment) and a discussion started. There was an issue we had with parking at the building. As the issue was discussed and we got a solution implemented, the community chimed in again to thank us for taking care of the problem.

I think our focus is making sure that we continue to engage the community and provide a remarkable experience for them. I’m cool with the fact that I can’t measure every little thing out there. It’s the in person comments that re-confirms our effort.


April 21, 2010 Anna Barcelos 3

Since data is a large part of my job, I really enjoyed this post Shannon! Data is the central point for communication with customers and prospects. Collecting various types of data and using it in insightful ways to solve customer issues and help achieve goals is the true value of a database of information. What’s key as well is the intrepretation of the data through analysis. One can’t simply look at analytics from a specific campaign and draw final conclusions. It’s a collection of various types of data – offline, online, behavioral, etc.- that drives more realistic conclusions and a better basis for communicating with customers and prospects.

Peter said it best, if you’re not able to use data to help employees and customers, it’s useless.


April 22, 2010 Christa Watson 4

Now I feel like a lurker so I will leave a comment with no insight or value whatsoever so you know I was here and lurked :)



April 22, 2010 Shannon Paul 5

Hah! Christa, we’re all lurkers at least some of the time. Thanks for saying hi :)


April 27, 2010 Pablo Edwards 6

Spectator sport is right. I am shocked at how people use and think of Social Media. Some people admit to using it for keeping tabs on others, even their spouses, seems kinda psycho.


April 29, 2010 Dean McBeth 7

Great post; definitely couldn’t agree more! As to sentiment – I use it and educate clients about it as simply a giant foam finger to point “generally” in the direction of yes, looks like what we’re doing is working or Holy S@#! we need to make a change fast. Drilling down any deeper gets you in a rabbit hole fast.

When generating our Community Insights, it’s interesting – I can attest that <1% actually leave a trace out of millions of paid and social impressions.

Thanks for sharing!



May 1, 2010 Annie Stith (Gr8fulAnnie) 8

Hey, Shannon!

First time visitor, here. Blame Twitter. ;)

Wow, that was quite a post. As an in-design-stage blogger/writer, even I was able to follow it tho I’ve never run or seen analytics yet.

I’m not sure it’s necessary to go so far as to try to track the movement of all the lurkers who visit a site. Isn’t part of the proof that something’s working (or not) ultimately in the sales numbers, online and off?

As for controversy, I love a good debate. I think a lot of people do, but I also think it’s necessary to be very careful. People can be judgmental, and it can happen in a heartbeat. Look at what’s happening with Arizona Tea as a result of the state of Arizona (no connection) passing its new “immigration” law. The tea company’s sales dropped, and were even boycotted in some areas, according to NYTimes.com. People also need to be educated about the controversy.

I’ll be back, sometimes lurking in the dark matter. ;)



May 4, 2010 relationshipsellingbuffs 9

Guess in one form or another I have been a lurker but a little controversy can be good, however like Annie says it should be tempered as it can be more than you bargained for at times. Hadn’t heard about Arizona Tea. Wow that is really something. Uninformed is just as dangerous as too much information. Great post.


May 6, 2010 Allen - Social Media Marketer 10

Raising debates, acknowledging, providing fresh and useful content,goal settings all can be treated as strategies to social media. Also I think there are no certain rules rather updating with moving trends!


May 10, 2010 Online Marketing Blog 11

thanks for the cool post.


June 3, 2010 New Orleans Attorney 12

Great post of about web data. Enjoyed reading about online metrics.


June 7, 2010 adsense alternatives 13

Thought provoking figures there! I guess we will always have lurkers…


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